Alas, poor Rolf: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 2

As I talked about here, I’m committing to only reviewing RPG products I’ve actually used – so, run or played – and in Part 1 I talked about how I ran and adapted the first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. In this part, I’m going to more generally review the adventure, and see what gems we can steal for our own games from it. It’s in Enemy in Shadows, and is available from Cubicle 7 here.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

As with Part 1, below is full of spoilers – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Overall, I think this is an excellent adventure, with a few quirks which come from (a) its being written in another age, and (b) being designed to be the opening act of an enormous campaign. It pulls the PCs together well, with an quirky hook that gets them to travel to Altdorf, and then to Bogenhafen, and leave them at a loose end with a reason to stick together and a lot of potential threads to pick up.

Poor old Rolf Hurtsiss has seen better days

The art is consistently fantastic, and the writing manages to tread a tightrope and be both evocative and laugh-out-loud funny at times. In particular, the NPCs are sketched really well, and the character of the places you visit – from the Coach and Horses Inn, to Altdorf, to Weissbruck – really comes across.

Everyone has a name

The first ‘monster’ you meet on the road – the mutant Rolf Hurtsis – is an old acquaintance of one of the characters; but even after this, every character is drawn with a past, and every one is named. The rest of the mutant band – led by Knud – all have names (I made them call out to one another as the PCs – as expected – slaughtered them). Nobody appears on the scene without having a richer and fuller life outside the story they are in, and the world is richer for it; the road warden is tracking down his sister on the road to Altdorf, for example. And, even more so…

Everyone has character

The NPCs are so well drawn in here, it’s worth taking the time to give them some character at the table. I jotted down some of the 7-3-1 technique for each one, although that sometimes led me to “now what does Josef talk like again?” moments, it made their interactions – which are at the centre of this adventure – more interesting.

Playing online, there are a few tricks to make characters stand out. The first is to show their picture (and every NPC in the adventure has great art) when you talk as them – I used “Show to Players” with Handouts on Roll20, but there are lower tech versions like sharing a screen if you’re running without VTT. The second is to overact terribly. I exhausted my limited repertoire of accents after two sessions, but it does help to have Josef talk like a pirate king (Hans Pflaster, the aforementioned roadwarden – was Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov from Death of Stalin, and just as short-tempered) to get a sense of versimilitude. That said…

It can be a bit Carry On

There’s an element of farce to the central conceit – and several of the key scenes – that might take some careful running. There are times when your players might be tempted to back out – when they follow Josef to the pub in Bogenhafen, and it’s quickly obvious they’re in a very dangerous place – so I think setting the tone is important. 

There’s a lot of Long Game Foreshadowing

I’ve never run a game before where I dropped a rumour in the first session that foreshadows Empire in Ruins, the fifth instalment of the campaign that sits maybe 40-50 sessions away. I’ll deal with if they remember the (false as it turns out) rumour then if and when it occurs. I took the approach of, whenever the book gave me a page of rumours, liberally spreading them out to my players, without showing them which were immediately relevant and which were flavour. This seemed to work well, and they’ve not led to too many red herrings yet.

It’s a bit Bait and Switch

Your group may vary with this – but I’d like to think that my players were under no illusions, when they found their lookalike body, that they weren’t actually going to collect 10,000 Crowns. By the time they get to Bogenhafen, and almost everyone they’ve ever associated with has turned up dead, more cautious players might be forgiven for being wary about heading to collect the inheritance. I presented this as if there weren’t many options – and in any case, it couldn’t be more dangerous than that dockside pub in Altdorf, right?

In Summary

It’s great. It’s not really like anything I’ve run before in a fantasy setting, and indeed it stands alone in terms of where its encounters come from. There’s no monsters to fight, or wilderness areas – it’s an entirely urban adventure, really – with a few interludes on canals or roads, but still well within reach of the Roadwardens. Given that it manages to still be terrifying even when in the midst of supposed safety, I’d recommend it to anyone – although tell your GM you’ve read this first so they can switch it up with the Grognard Boxes!

Have you played or run Mistaken Identity? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

The Third Pillar – Fixing Exploration

In this previous post, I talked about the first two “pillars” of D&D – and by association TTRPGs generally – combat and roleplaying. I’ve put a whole post into the third one, exploration, for a simple reason – I don’t think that we do exploration very well. That is, I don’t think TTRPGs do it very well, and I think there’s a lack of clarity about what it actually is.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m going to describe why exploration is tricky, then try to suggest some ways to make it better. 

Why is exploration hard?

  • It’s not explained well. Looking at the Exploration section of the 5e DMG, there’s two pages covering travel time outdoors, tracking (mainly DCs), visibility, noticing other creatures, and a bit about “special travel pace” to calculate daily travel times if your movement rate gets adjusted (by a spell, for instance). Setting to one side that these are all ‘wilderness adventures’ things, there’s not a lot of rules to sit alongside this. These don’t seem to be rules for exploration – more rules for travelling a long way.
  • It’s not supported by rules. Exploring a dungeon involves crawling from room to room and having encounters. Exploring wilderness (once you’ve worked out your special travel pace) involves walking across a map – and maybe encountering monsters or NPCs. Exploring a new city involves walking around talking to NPCs. All of the excitement in these situations comes from the other two pillars – combat or roleplay. Generally (and there are a few notable exceptions), exploration in itself isn’t rules-supported.
  • It’s not clear what it is. The player’s handbook gives some examples about Exploration being “the give and take of the players describing what they want to do, and the Dungeon Master telling them what happens as a result.” (PHB, p8) – this sounds an awful lot like the entire gaming experience – or Apocalypse Worlds’ roleplay as a conversation – do these things not happen during combat or roleplay?
  • It relies on a traditional GM vs. players model of narrative control. This control has since been shifted in so many games, and in so many play cultures, that the “wander around and find out” type of exploration now feels dull and lifeless to many of us. If I’m planning a wilderness expedition, I’m much more likely to use a 13th Age-style montage or ask my players for descriptive details with Paint The Scene questions than I am to feed information myself.
Dark forests should be scary by themselves, without needing combat or roleplaying as well

Categorizing exploration

Word lovers, look away now. I’m going to posit that exploration is too generic a term, so I’m going to create some portmanteau’s to split it into useful categories. I’m going to argue that exploration is primarily about transfer of information – that is, finding stuff out. This can happen in a few ways.

  • Placeploration is background learning. This can be utterly rubbish, learning what happened 200 years ago (the “Adventure Background” bit we all used to skip over before the actual adventure) – or it can be a brilliant piece of versimilitude. It can foreshadow future events, or provide details of what’s going on in the world’s metaplot. Basically, learning anything that isn’t usable this session falls into this category.
    • It takes a few days to cross the forest, and you find the lumber camps abandoned and empty. Make me an Intuition check (succeeds) – looks like they packed up in a hurry, and there are indistinct boots and tracks that look like goblins around here. After you’ve recovered the crown, you could come back here and look into that.
  • Plotsploration is directly relevant secrets and clues for the current plot. By exploring the dungeon, the city or the world you uncover secrets and clues that either bring you closer to the confrontation, or provide an advantage in it. This works best as a drip-drip of information, and can happen during, as well as in between, combat and roleplaying scenes.
    • This room is clearly a prison. There’s chains and manacles on the walls where prisoners must have been held, but no sign of the Prince. Closer inspection of the manacles reveals they’ve been unlocked, and there are a couple of broken lockpicks on the floor nearby – a picklock did this, and not a particularly good one at that.
  • Perilsploration is less about information transfer and more about crossing a barrier. You’ve got to walk across Mirkwood to get to tell the elves, and it’s going to be dangerous. These places should be dangerous even if they didn’t have combat or roleplaying in, so sometimes you might have to create a skill challenge in order to model it. Games that do this well already, saving you this time, are The One Ring, Trophy, 13th Age (montages can be switched to any system, the rules are so straightforward), Ironsworn, Mouse Guard, and a lot of the PBTA games. These are good frameworks to get some placesploration in as well, as your players try to overcome the barrier.
    • The signal tower is three days away, and you’ve only got two. We’ve got a skill check each – probably at DC 15 unless you try something exceptional – to try and get there in time, and you’ll need at least 3 successes to get there in time. What  are you rolling?

Once you’ve got exploration split into these categories, it’s easier to incorporate it into your game – think about each instance you have in your prep, and whether its a barrier, current info, or future info – and spread out your clues appropriately. I’ll pull together some examples in a future post – in the meantime, what other fixes do you have for exploration? Or are you happy with it as it’s presented in TTRPGs generally? Let me know in the comments.

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Prelude One-Shot: Into the Snow

I’m running D&D again. This time, I’ve got hold of a crew of 4 players, a mixture of veterans and newcomers, to run through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll be blogging here about how I’m adapting it, tweaking it, and approaches to it (worth noting if you’re interested that Sly Flourish has already done a great job of this here – I’m not going to duplicate his work!)

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

One of my players is brand new to roleplaying. So, instead of expecting him to dive into character creation and commit to a long campaign, I thought I’d run a one-shot with pregens to set the scene. This is set in Ten Towns, in the same place as the game, foreshadows some of the content, and gets everyone on the same page about tone. It’s an idea I’ve heard Simon Burley, esteemed designer of Golden Heroes, talk about as his default campaign starter (he calls it a “Session Minus One”) and I’ve never done it before. 

It’s first level, to keep everything simple, and is a fairly linear progression, although all of the encounters have a few ways to resolve them. Most of the opposition arrives in waves, which is a good trick for balancing 1st level fights – they can be really swingy when one blow can knock out a player or opponent, so having not everyone attack at once means you can adjust the level of challenge on the fly a bit. It’s balanced for 3 1st level PCs – just add or subtract bandits or undead if you have more or fewer.

It went great – and we’re now one session into the actual campaign! In a couple of months I hope to follow this up with a ‘review’ of the first chapter, Ten Towns, based on actual play. Inspired by Fear of a Black Dragon, I’m trying to limit my reviews to products or adventures I’ve actually played or run, because I think this is most useful – although I appreciate not all reviewers can do this, and if everyone did there wouldn’t be many reviews around! There’s a place for reviews-after-reading as well, they just do different things.

But, I digress. Here is the adventure, presented exactly as my prep notes looked for it – let me know if you use it here or on Twitter @milnermaths !

Into the Snow

A Rime of the Frostmaiden prelude adventure (3 x 1st level PCs)

You live in the far north, beyond the Spine of the World, in the desolate icy realms of Ten-Towns. For the past two years, Icewind Dale has been stuck in an endless winter – every night, strange lights appear, and every night lasts forever as the sun fails to rise. Trapped forever in glacial ice, you eke out a precarious living.

As we open we see you trudge across an open snowfield, a heavily laden sled pulled by two huskies, Gore and Chew. It’s three hours since you set off from Easthaven, one of the more prosperous towns, and you carry on your sled beer, mead, and supplies for Caer Dineval. Caer Dineval has been without beer for two weeks now – you can’t imagine their pain.

  • Describe your character – what are they carrying, how are they walking alongside the sled

But the going has been hard. 9 hours this would normally take, but the snow has come in and you fear a blizzard is coming. As you cross an ice floe, you notice the dogs startle – and the wind threatens to tip your sled over.

  • Ask the PCs what they are doing to prevent the tip. Generally it might be a Survival (Wisdom) check, but they could use other skills as well. At least half (rounded down) need to make it – if they fail, they are overwhelmed when the raiders attack and suffer disadvantage on Initiative checks

Scene 1 – Raiders in the Ice

Out of the snow and ice appear shadows, and the barking of dogs – you are under attack!

There are 4 raiders (bandits), but only 2 attack – and 2 rough huskies (mastiffs). As they fight, each round they see the snow get thicker – and as they flee / are defeated, they notice the sled has been raided.

0 failures – they have grabbed some of the supplies, and a prized bottle of Calishite brandy, charged with delivery to the Caer Dineval castle by your patron

1 failure – as above, but a couple of barrels of mead have gone as well

2 failures – all the supplies are taken

3 failures – one of the huskies has been dragged off as well

As the storm momentarily clears, they can attempt to make sense and give chase.

A Survival (Wisdom) check DC 15 will reveal that the storm is only briefly abated, and they had better follow the tracks now – they lead towards some rough hills which might also offer some shelter

A History or Investigation DC 11 check shows the men to be natives of Icewind Dale, clad in rough winter clothes – accustomed to living in the wilds, but not themselves Rheged Nomads

Scene 2 – The Chwingas

As they follow the tracks, they make their way towards the hills. Strange black crystals occasionally jut from the horizon – DC 15 Arcana to reveal it is Chardalyn, a magical material found only in Icewind Dale.

But the storm gets worse. Ask for DC 10 Survival checks to avoid becoming Exhausted – and then DC 10 Perception to notice a shelter ahead. 

A group of 6-inch-tall animated dolls, about 5 of them, are dancing around a fire

DC 15 Arcana or History to reveal these are Chwingas – tiny fey folk who can be helpful if charmed.

They mimic the characters, then ask them to dance – an appropriate skill check must be made (at DC 12) to receive a charm from each of them.

They award these charms in order: Charm of Vitality Charm of Heroism Charm of Bounty

The PCs can rest while the storm rages around them, and when it passes there are no signs of tracks. The Chwingas, however, can indicate the way their raiders went – up a narrow path to a hill cave

Scene 3 – The Hill Cave

With the mastiffs caged up outside, they can see the tiny cave as they approach – a group Stealth check DC 10 is enough to gain entry. They see the 4 raiders, and a teenaged girl, Varana. She is clad in wispy clothes despite the biting cold and seeks no trouble.

They can try and recapture their stuff, and this is an easy fight – the bandits will only fight to ⅓ of their hp – so 3 hp or less- before surrendering. Then, they tell them the story

Varana was a sacrifice, one of the lottery chosen by the Children of Auril, a cult who seek to end the endless night. She escaped, with her friends, three months ago. They move around a lot, looking for shelter. She clearly has some sort of magical power – as if the frost won’t touch her as she has escaped the Frostmaiden’s clutches – so she protects her friends.

They cover their tracks with the blizzards that follow Varana around… the PCs didn’t leave any tracks here, did they? (At that, they hear the howl of the dogs from outside, and a splash of blood – and the cult death squad attacks)

The cult death squad is an instrument of icy doom – a goliath zombie and a pair of skeletons crash through, while another 4 skeletons attack the following round

As they defeat (or are defeated by) the death squad, they find Varana is gone. They can trudge back to Caer Dineval with their recovered loot.

Prep Techniques: The Boss Monster

Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.

First, the Fluff

Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.

Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!

They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.

Antagonist-based plotting is a staple of superhero gaming, but it can also be used for any TTRPG genre

Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.

Next, the Crunch

To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.

They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.

As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.

Third, the Adventure

Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.

You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.

So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!

BOSS PROFILE

Name:

Goal & why the PCs care:

“Secret” weakness:

Description:

Lieutenants (1-3):

Mid-range Antagonists:

Minions:

Locations:

Potential non-combat challenges:

2022’s New Game Resolutions

As we come to the end of the year, I think it’s always worth reviewing how you’re getting on with the hobby, and thinking about where you’re heading with it. For me, 2021 was pretty similar to 2020 – a lot more online play, with the odd face to face game at conventions later in the year. But my gaming is still dominated by regular online groups, and this is all good – there’s lots of stuff I’m excited to continue with next year.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Organisation / This Blog

I’m going to try and get more ad hoc games up – one-shots or 3 / 4 session mini-campaigns – with groups set up just for the one off. I started a Supers One-Shot club halfway through the year, and though we’ve hit some scheduling difficulties recently, it’s been great to try out some games with a supportive group.

Keep your eyes peeled in the new year for dates for Burn After Playing, which will (finally) start up – one-shots with Patreon priority on topics covered in the blog. Growing Patreon is also a priority so I can get some art and design stuff for the blog (maybe even…. T Shirts and Mugs? How stylish would we all look?!) – so feel free to spread the word. While I’m clear on wanting the blog to be publicly open – so the vast majority of core content will be just offered as early access to Patrons – I’ve got a few ideas for Patreon exclusives, including sharing my prep notes and pregens for con games ready-to-run. 

The other priority with the blog is to start some youtubing – I’ve not quite got this idea finalised in my head, but thinking of a mixture of recordings of one-shots (without some of the filler you often get in streamed RPGs – straight to the action, paced like a con one-shot), live prep sessions, and maybe even interviews with other con GMs. I’m open to ideas at the moment – what would be useful for you?

Gaming – Long-Form

There’s a few campaigns that I’ve got bubbling under I’d like to get run, and some of them are below

The Enemy Within – after spending a lot of 2021 running WFRP one-shots, I’d like to finally tackle this beast. Even with the remixed Cubicle 7 edition, I think I’d want to edit it a bit to keep the pace to my tastes, and I’m not sure if I’ve got a group for it yet, but I’d like to get another ‘classic’ campaign under my belt. Would definitely run in ‘seasons’ per each of the books.

The One Ring 2e – The One Ring was my entry drug into online GMing, and when the new edition hits print, I’ve the regular Tuesday group primed to play through some of 2nd ed. I ran a one-shot megamix of the starter set at Grogmeet recently, and the new rules really work from what I can see. Will probably take one of the 1st ed adventure cycles and run it through – I’m a bit unconvinced by The Darkening of Mirkwood as it might be a bit too long … and slow-build… for our tastes.

13th Age Glorantha – Amazingly, I haven’t run any 13th Age at all this year. I’d like to give 13G a proper run, 1st to 10th level, seeing our heroes grow to world-shaking power. The limiting factors are my lack of knowledge of Gloranthan lore, and my lack of enthusiasm to learn any Gloranthan lore. Glorantha will vary though, right? It’s mostly ducks and cows anyway.

D&D – I’ve got an itch to run some D&D, and maybe even one of the big hardback campaigns. I know Curse of Strahd gets all the praise, but I’ve currently torn between Rime of the Frostmaiden and Wild Beyond the Witchlight. This involves finding a group for it – although I’ve got one keen player already – and if I’m running D&D online I want players on the same page as me about what kind of fun we’re having – which I might elaborate on in a later post.

Gaming – Short-Form

My “bubble list” of games I want to run one-shots of includes Soulbound, Pathfinder 2 (that’s what reviewing a good adventure does to you), Trail of Cthulhu (I’ve somehow never run a Gumshoe game), and Wanderhome – or at least something using Belonging Outside Belonging, the diceless PBTA-adjacent collaborative system.

There’s a few other new games that I’d like a sampler of a one-shot before running any longer – from Lex Arcana (Roman occult investigators with a funky dice system that might be great) and Ironclaw (incredibly I’ve never run this anthropomorphic fantasy system) to Hearts of Wulin and some more PBTA games.

I’d also like to give Feng Shui 2’s new adventures published through the subscription system a good run out, and finally get some Heart and Spire one-shots to the table. There seems to be a lot of good stuff coming out of itch at the moment, and I should get some of them put on – maybe these are options for Burn After Playing as well.

As always, this list might well change before January ends, such is the hobby. What are your 2022 want-to-do’s in roleplaying? And, as above, let me know what sort of Patreon benefits you’d like to see – whether you’re a patron or not.

One-Shot Reviews: Threshold of Knowledge for Pathfinder 2nd Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done a review of a product, but here we are. For a change, over the next few reviews I’m going to look at (ideally) freely-available one-shot adventures, with a focus on unpicking and adapting them for other settings and systems. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I’m normally of the view that a review is much more valuable if you’ve played the product. With that in mind, I’ve neither run nor played Threshold of Knowledge – yet, and have only played Pathfinder 2nd Edition once in a playtest demo once. It’s available as a free download here, if you missed picking it up on Free RPG Day.

In these reviews, apart from an overview of the product, we’ll look at the structure, and how it works for a one-shot – with an eye towards running for new people. I’ve tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free in case you end up playing it – but I’ve not been too careful, so you might want to stop reading now if you plan on playing this.

The Product

Threshold of Knowledge is 16 pages, with a page of maps, and 5 pregenerated 1st-level characters. It’s set around the Magaambya magic school in Pathfinder’s Mwangi Expanse region, which makes it feel different and cool – Mwangi is a diverse and exciting land, and where a huge magic school is based – which features heavily. The art is, as you’d expect from Paizo, lovely.

You’ll need your PF2 books close to hand to run this – monsters aren’t given stats if they’re already in the Bestiary, and in one case you’ll need to flip between two pages of it (or, obviously, work out what Weak Sea Devil stats are in advance – it’s a shame the book doesn’t do this, although obviously it allows them to cram more in.)

In terms of the plot, there’s a bit of fetching-and-carrying and a chase across town before the PCs need to explore a mini-dungeon and rescue their teacher. The encounters in the dungeon are a good mix of straight-up fights and avoidable monsters, and I’d be happy to run this for a group – many of the adversaries can be negotiated with, tricked, or (in the case of the crocodile Jubo) snuck past while he dozes. Each individual encounter feels well-thought-out and flexible, which compensates for it being entirely linear.

The Structure

The structure of the adventure is, as I’ve said, a straight line. You chase a dwarf across town (sequence of skill checks), get sent to do some fishing (more open-ended skill checks), and then have a fight and a bit of puzzling to find the way to the dungeon. Once there, it’s a straight line of rooms – sort of a 5 room dungeon, although there are only actually 4 rooms and there’s not too much of a twist or trick in it. 

I’ve said before that I’ve got no problem with a linear series of scenes, and I think ToK manages to make each individual bit interesting enough to avoid it – although I’ll know more after I’ve run it. There’s also quite a lot in this – I can imagine this taking two session easily, especially accounting for PF2’s far-from-quick combat learning curve.

One thing stands out about the combat encounters as you run through them – every one has a different approach you can take. Even the first encounter, as much a training-level fight as anything, has a chance for a Nature check to pick up a clue that can help in the fight. Other encounters have different options – one can be negotiated with, another can be snuck past, and the final confrontation is really more about stopping a ritual than defeating the creature – so either approach will work. 

One thing that I was surprised at, doing the maths for the encounters, is how they were all Low- or Moderate-challenge in terms of PF2’s encounter building. When I run it I’d be tempted to beef up the final confrontation a bit to add a bit of jeopardy – I’ll resist sharing spoilers but an additional level 1 Creature (say, like the one two rooms earlier) will make that final fight a bit more dangerous.

The Fluff

I’m a big fan of what Paizo have done with the Pathfinder setting, and especially with the Mwangi expanse, and there’s a lot to like in the presentation of this adventure that grounds it in the setting. You’re students at a magical school, to begin with (which seems to be the current fantasy trend, and the adventure very much shines with the city of Nantambu – you get a real sense of the magical school’s influence around the city, and some neat mechanical things reinforce this.

To start, you get magical items right away here – a bubbling scale that lets you breathe water, and earn other rewards as you go on. This is something I need to put more of in my 1st-level one-shots, and fantasy one-shots generally – the reward factor of getting something useful and magical is great for players and brings them into the setting. 

The pregens are good in terms of roleplaying prep – they feel like actual con pregens for their fluff. There’s background on their life before joining the academy and how they feel about a couple of the other pregens (I might make these bonds questions, where they can decide who they trust most and worry about most from the group, and why, if I was running for an experienced group). In short, the ideal amount of backstory from a traditional game perspective. Their rules write-ups are okay, too, if not perfect – I’d want a handout for what e.g. the elixirs of life and alchemist’s fires that some of them carry do, as well as spell descriptions. There’s a couple of new spells to go with the three new minor magical items as well.

In Summary

I really like this as a one-shot, and as I get more curious about PF2 I’d like to get it to the table. The skill checks – training fight – puzzle – mini-dungeon structure works well, and I’ll certainly be borrowing that. Although a few branching points would be nice, the alternate-approaches for each encounter is textbook. I’d go so far as to say you could learn a lot about one-shot prep just by reading this.

Prep Techniques: A Bag of Tricks

In earlier prep technique posts, I’ve talked about 5 Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s method, using 3 Places, and starting with a con pitch. Most of those are focussed toward more traditional GM-prepped games – where you have a clear idea of the scenes and sequence of play the players will encounter in game. Today I’m going to share a technique I’ve been using to prep for Blades in the Dark, John Harper’s game of steampunk heists in a cursed city. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. In addition, for this post, Patrons have access to my prep notes for the two sessions of Blades play that inspired this post – so they can see it in action!

With Blades (and other less GM-led games, including a lot of PBTA games – although some of those have other prep processes) – you don’t really know where the PCs are going to go. You prep a score, and some things that might happen in it – and then roll with the punches and dice rolls of the players. This can be intimidating if you’re used to a more traditional setup – and indeed, I’ve shown here how a more traditional setup can work with Blades as a one-shot – but it can really sing if you’ve done your prep to be ready to respond to players in a few different ways.

The idea behind this technique is to produce a bag of stuff that can be used during the session to keep it ticking along, in systems that do some (but not all) of the improv heavy lifting for you.

What’s This For?

In the examples below, I’ll be talking about Blades, and this definitely works for mission-based Forged in the Dark games. Some PBTA games like Masks and Monster of the Week have similar approaches – MOTW has a mystery countdown and a monster, and Masks needs your Supervillain statted up – and I think it generally works for more directly-plotted PBTA games. 

If I was running, for example, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Monsterhearts, or Apocalypse World as a one-shot, I’d definitely use this – because I’d want a strong inciting incident and a finite stage of locations for the action. In an ongoing campaign, I might be less constrained by the first step below, but I’d probably use the same process described below for Locations and Characters and Moments for each session.

Think About the Score

Disclaimer: in any post about how to prep a John Harper game, the first advice is – do what John Harper tells you to do. This is right there in the book, but it is a bit hidden away on p188 in the GM Actions section. Maybe it’s not hidden away – but I’d run Blades a few times before reading it.

In it, you need to consider the mission you’re offering the players – it has a structure of things to think about, like the target location, some secrets to be discovered, an obvious and non obvious approach vector – but nothing too concrete. Often the first scene – where a faction offers the score – is the only fully-prepped scene in the session, and this is where this tends to come out.

To tell the truth, sometimes I follow this process, and sometimes I just write a con pitch-style overview for the score. Generally the secrets and factions come out through the rest of the process.

One or Two Locations, Plenty of Characters

You’ll need to think about the main location where you expect play to take place, and you’ll need a cast of characters for the PCs to interact with. Generally I’ll try and prep more NPCs than I need so I can throw extra ones in when needed – and in an ongoing game those leftover characters will just reappear later. I use something like the Gauntlet’s 7-3-1 technique for this, and 7 is a good number total for these things.

In particular, having a way to portray NPCs at the table is really useful to make them more interesting – it’s only at the am-dram level, we’re not Critical Role – but it really helps to model a little bit of in-character dialogue from the players as well.

Moments

Moments are your Batman Utility-Belt of cool descriptions – including shark-repellant spray!

Moments is an idea lifted directly from Trophy – I think – although other Gauntlet games feature them now, and they’re a great idea. Basically, they’re background, system and setting neutral-ish things that happen to reinforce the tone and style of the game. If that sounds too fancy, these were what I had for an Infirmary raid score in Blades a few weeks ago:

  • A scream from a nearby room as a pair of drunken Billhooks play a deadly game of amateur surgery on one another and come running out
  • A covered body that appears to still be breathing
  • A neatly arranged table of surgical tools and chemicals
  • A panicked orderly desperately trying to ignore the chaos around them
  • Rows and rows of Bluecoats setting up to raid the Skovlanders

They don’t have to be amazingly original or interesting, but they help you to come up with something that gives the locations and setting more verisimilitude as you play without requiring boxed-text style prep.

So, with a score/opening scene, some locations and characters, and a few moments, you should be good to go. Extras to consider are – if you haven’t already covered them in the score prep – what sort of twists could arrive to complicate matters, and what secrets about their target could be revealed. Usually when I use this method, these come out organically from the locations and characters as I think about their motivations. What other prep techniques have you used for FITD / PBTA / other more loosely controlled systems?

Release The Trolls – How to Run Vaesen One-Shots (or Campaigns)

Vaesen is Free League’s game of folk horror investigation, where 19th century Scandinavian investigators explore the conflicts between humanity and the Vaesen – supernatural creatures like werewolves, ghosts, and fairies. It uses the Year Zero Engine, and for me this fits the game really well – and it has a structure to its investigations that make it great for one-shots or episodic campaigns. There’s even a follow-up Kickstarter running at the moment (well, depending on when you read this) to bring the game to Britain and Ireland.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Each mission, you’re called out to somewhere, and travel there to try and resolve the conflict of the area. This gives a great Town-A-Week structure to Vaesen, and I really enjoy running it – even though investigative games aren’t always my bag. Here are my four top tips for making it sing:

Prep the Structure

Firstly, Vaesen has a whole chapter dedicated to Mystery design. This is absolute gold, and I’d recommend reading – or even following along – with this to create your first mystery. That’s what I followed when I designed the Haunted Mill introductory scenario, and it works well. Like Tales From The Loop, Vaesen assumes a Three Places style of prep – where players are free to explore nodes as a countdown continues, leading up to a final confrontation.

One word of warning – the published adventures (in the core book and A Wicked Secret – don’t always follow this structure. By all means run them as a way in, but they play around a bit with the prep advice – so don’t rely on them as models.

Nail Your Places

If you’re starting from scratch with your prep, you might be wise to think about your confrontation first – how can the conflict with the Vaesen be resolved? – and then think about where that could happen. From that, you can think of your core places in the town. I’d suggest that usually, you want something like this

  • A place where the regular townspeople meet and ill-informed gossip can be had (a PUB, if you like)
  • A place where the ‘traditional’/modern view of the Vaesen is represented (this is often a CHURCH, but it could be a factory or a work camp)
  • A place where the old ways are kept, and the Vaesen are respected (a SPOOKY PLACE, maybe on the outskirts of the town)

As long as you have those three, you’ll probably have enough to feed the players clues to lead to the confrontation. One thing I’ve noticed in play (at least among my group) is that a pub is expected – make sure to consider what excitement and clues visiting the tavern can bring, even if it’s not a major location. On a practical note, the investigators need somewhere to stay, and it’s usually best if this is a place of relative safety – several of the rules kick in to recover conditions here, and it lets you pull no punches in other confrontations. 

Add Friends, Enemies, and Frenemies

Your Vaesen will almost certainly need allies – either humans wrapped up in its worship like a cult, or actual products of the Vaesen – a confrontation against a lone monster is rarely exciting without some other parties to contend with. For most Vaesen it’s relatively easy to give them some agents in the town – and remember that any one with Enchant can Command Animal, so don’t rule out packs of wild dogs or the odd bear to contend with.

When I prep Mysteries, I think it’s good to have some actual conflict during the investigation – ideally fairly early – and often this will be with the Vaesen’s agents, rather than the Vaesen itself. Plan for this and put it into your Countdown, and throw it at them early.

In a town, you’ll likely have quite a few NPCs to detail – and portray at the table. Painting them with broad brush strokes, or just giving each of them one distinctive feature to portray, will help them to stand out to your players and make the investigation more role-play based. 

Countdown Fast And Early

Each mystery has at least one countdown which is the Vaesen’s (or another faction’s) reaction to the investigators showing up in the town. This is the device that adds urgency to the game and prevents turtling, so go hard and fast with this. I like to trigger the first countdown within half an hour (game time) of the PCs arrival, and often almost as soon as they pitch up. Starting with a bang forces investigation and exploration, and reinforces the danger the community is under.

So, my top tips for running Vaesen – either as a one-shot or an ongoing campaign. Have any of you tried it, as a player or GM? Anything you’d add?

Getting to 100 in 2021 – How To Play More

Earlier this week, with a session of Blades in the Dark in which the crew of Bravos almost managed to pull off a quiet score without burning anything down, I played my 100th game session of 2021 (I say ‘played’ for playing or running – the GM’s a player too). I’m pretty pleased with this, although my gaming hasn’t quite reached 2020’s pandemic-induced heights – by this time then I was on 133.

If you’re reading this and wish you got to play more, here are some hints I’ve picked up from 2 years of playing a lot.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Online ftw

Playing RPGs online is easy and convenient. For me, it’s been the easiest way to keep a regular weeknight group together. Yes, you lose some of the camaraderie and banter from sitting round a table, but that isn’t always a bad thing, either – games can be much more focussed in a 2-3 hr online slot. A group with multiple potential GMs is the easiest way to keep it together and make it a regular thing. I’ve found online play to be much more resilient to the vicissitudes of work and real life – and there are lots of resources and advice available to help you set up. 

If you haven’t yet tried it – and, honestly, I’m amazed any gamer has made it through the pandemic without transitioning to online – you should. Online groups aren’t going anywhere.

My breakdown – D&D, Savage Worlds, and Star Trek Adventures making the medal places

Conventions, Meet-Ups, Game Days

There are lots of these springing up – from my own Go Play Leeds, Go Play Manchester, and various Meetups and groups offering games. If you want to play with new people and find players, a one-shot is a great way to try out their company and see if your styles are compatible.

Lots of these have transitioned to online and are currently offering a blended model – or staying as online presences – an online con is a really great way to get some games in with people you wouldn’t normally, without the time and expense of travelling and accommodation.

Balance GMing and Playing

I GM a lot, but I still aim for at least a 50/50 split of sessions where I run compared to playing (I’m at 44% GMing at the moment, which I’m very happy with). Playing and GMing are very different experiences in a lot of games, and one definitely feeds the other in terms of inspiration and ideas.

It’s also worth thinking of a campaign as having a finite length. 4-12 sessions of linked sessions is a reasonable length – by thinking about this at the start, you’re more likely to have a satisfying conclusion than letting it tail off. Also, be prepared to get one shots out of nowhere – a shout out on twitter for a given game, as long as you’ve prepped it, will help.

Have Some Back Pocket Prep

You know that game you’d like to run? What if 4 players showed up tonight and were up for playing? Could you offer them it? If you’re interested in GMing, prep a one-shot and have it ready. In every meetup, club, and games day I’ve seen, there’s dropouts, and having a chance to offer something will get picked up. 

“I’d like to run Werewolf – but I’ll need  few weeks to get it together,” is very unlikely to result in a game… “I’ve got a Werewolf one-shot, could be a campaign starter, ready to go – with pregens – fancy trying a session and seeing how it goes?” is very likely to result in a game.

Right now I’ve got Brancalonia, Heart, and Age of Sigmar Soulbound bubbling around in my brain, ready to run, and I need to get on it to get them ready to run. I’ve actually done some pregens for Soulbound, and I should commit to a session soon. So why not try some lonely fun (not Traveller) and get a session ready, without any con or group in mind?
So, 100 sessions and counting. I’m firmly of the belief that RPG experiences are improved by the Play > Prep > Read > Buy inequality chain – where do you stand on that? For the record, I’m much better at Play, Prep and Buy than I am at Read – not sure how that works – but I’m focussing on more play at the moment.

Great Train Journeys – In Defence of the Railroad

Last weekend, at Grogmeet, I found myself apologising as my One Ring 2e game started –

I’ve adapted this from the Starter Set adventures… it might be a bit linear…

Many of my one-shots are, I realise. Read prep posts here and you’ll find discussions of scenes, pre-planned for trad games, that often take place in a set order. I think I run a lot of railroads at cons. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

So, should I be apologising? Well, no – because first of all, a good railroad knocks the socks off a poor sandbox – it’s easier to pace and easier to prep if you know where the game is going. Also, there are some ways to make your railroad much less railroady, so your players don’t feel they’ve been shoehorned into a plot. Here are my top tips for making linear one-shots better.

An actual railroad track. Don’t use this.

Multiple Resolutions

If you need scenes to happen in a set order, give each scene a flexible way to resolve it. For example, if your investigators have to find out that the Hell’s Angels were hired to threaten your murder victim, consider how the players can

  • Beat up on them to get their respect
  • Trick the information out of them
  • Negotiate with them for the clue

Come up with three ways to resolve the scene, and make each one exciting – but be open at the table to other reasonable requests; the thinking about different ways will make it easier for you to respond to other unexpected ways at the table.

Be flexible about scene transitions (what Robin Laws in Feng Shui 2 calls ‘connective tissue,’ too – have multiple ways to get to the next set piece scene, that can happen in a few ways. A 13th Age montage, or One Ring’s Journey system, are good approaches for this – as they create unpredictability, either from the players or the dice.

Flexible Ordering and “the Swell”

Another way to mix up the railroad and make it feel less linear is, well, to make it less linear. While you might have a clear idea of the start and end of your session, and possibly a key scene in the middle, intersperse this with scenes that can take place in any order.

So the players encounter the bandits raiding the village and fight them (KEY SCENE), learn of an opposing force massive to strike on the village (CONNECTIVE TISSUE), then recruit allies and prepare the village defenses (FLEXIBLE SCENES), then fight off the attack (KEY SCENE).

For the flexible scenes, it can help to think of them as short challenges, and think of a ‘normal approach’ (which might just be a simple skill check or challenge) that will get it done. Combine this approach with the one above – with multiple approaches for each task likely to be successful. Chain this between three key scenes, and you’ve got yourself an epic adventure. The example above was largely the plot of @the_smart_party ‘s Deadlands game I played at Grogmeet, where we foiled an actual railroad – following the mass battle (Savage Worlds, it turns out, has a great abstracted mass battle system) we tracked the real villain into his cult and fought him as a final key scene. 

Make Them Pop

The truth is, if your scenes are really entertaining, and transitions between them logical, nobody will care that they are linear. In a campaign, yes, you’ll find this unsatisfying after a couple of sessions, but in a one-shot the strong pull of a linear plot will keep everyone engaged.

Make sure each scene has some genuine stakes though – maybe they make subsequent scenes easier or harder, or feed into the final confrontation. Scenes do still need stakes, and you need to find a way to do this when the scenes that follow are pre-determined. And, whatever you do, don’t start the session sharing a map with one road going one way – a literal railroad out for everyone to see.

This was all I did with One Ring – the starter set has 5 adventures, so I stuck together two of them and tried to stick to the best bits and Spend Hope that the players enjoyed themselves – and I think they did.

What are your views on the railroad? Is anyone going to rush to the defense of the sandbox? Either way, let me know in the comments.